Second place is the first loser (but not by much)

Athletes like those who won medals at the recent Winter Olympics train intensely for their sport. When most of us think of training, we probably think only of physical exercise, but winning athletes also need to master the mental challenges of competition, which can be especially intense during the Olympic games. After all, the world is watching and nothing short of national pride is on the line.

Listen to the short sound pieces in this New York Times interactive graphic and you'll realize that the distance between winners and losers at the Olympic games is often less than an instant. Being mentally focused and prepared can make all the difference. To help them train, many athletes (including all of the US team) work with Sports Psychologists, mental health experts who help them to prepare for the distraction of crowds and the pressure of the moment. What does mental training involve? Athletes complete exercises in visualization, breathing, body control, and energy management to help them focus so they don't choke under pressure.

What about the mental implications of winning and losing? Psychologists (and economists!) who are interested in knowing more about what makes people happy have used the Olympic games as a kind of laboratory - looking at athletes who take first place and comparing them to those who don't.

As you might guess, winning a Gold medal feels pretty good, and athletes who take first seem to be pretty happy about it. But scientists found an unexpected result in their study on winning, losing, and happiness when they compared silver and bronze medalists - it seems that third place finishers are, on average, happier than those who come in second. Researchers learned this by watching interviews with Olympic athletes at the 1992 summer games and recording words and phrases that they used to describe how they were feeling. They also watched recordings of the facial expressions of the athletes on the podium, and concluded that while most Bronze medalists looked giddy, Silver medalists often seemed disappointed.

Why would you be happier with a third place title than second? Researchers point to a phenomenon called "counterfactual thinking" - in short, it means those in second place are plagued by thoughts of "what might have been" while bronze medalists are relieved that they placed at all. Second place finishers are thinking of the one tiny mistake that cost them first place, while third place finishers are relieved that they didn't make one mistake too many.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to Olympic athletes. We all compete in one sense or another, and have all probably dealt with moments of winning and losing, which is probably part of why we enjoy watching sports games.

Click here for more Buzz stories on science and the Winter Olympics.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Don't wait for your ship to come out to you. Swim out to it!

posted on Thu, 03/04/2010 - 1:01pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

well i think that is wrong

posted on Tue, 03/23/2010 - 4:54pm

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